The village of Ruca Choroi is made up of a handful of houses gathered along the side of the river of the same name. In the language of the indigenous Mapuche people here, the name means “house of the parrots”. And wind carries the song of those birds through the small valley, right along to where an unusual building, its blue roof shaped like a half moon, often draws attention from visitors. This as-yet-unfinished building is to be the first intercultural hospital in Argentina. In a few weeks, doctors who work in conventional medicine will be practicing here alongside traditional Mapuche healers. The clinic will be called “Ranguiñ Kien”, or “half moon”.
Ceferino Peña is a “ngenpiñ”, a spiritual leader, who orates the perspectives of the Mapuche people. And as he leads a tour through the construction site he describes the plans enthusiastically. “This will be the dining room, that’s where the rooms will be and the fireplace goes there,” he says, pointing at a wood burning fireplace located near the centre of the building.
Conventional medical practitioners might suggest that a fireplace in the middle of a medical clinic is more than just strange, it’s also unhygienic and potentially unsafe. But the Mapuche see it differently. “Fire is healing and this is a place where people can meet,” Peña explains. “This is where the patients will wait together with their families.”
The around 1,200 inhabitants in the Ruca Choroi district make up one of the oldest settlements of Mapuche in Neuquén province, at the northern end of Patagonia. In the 19th century, Mapuche people throughout all of Argentina were persecuted and during the so-called “Campaña del Desierto”, a series of military activities in the newly formed nation, the majority of this indigenous group was eliminated.
Gabriela Calfinahuel believes that the impact of that persecution is still felt today. The 30-year-old teacher, who teaches the indigenous language Mapuzungún, says that many families stopped speaking their own language out of shame and hid their heritage so that they wouldn’t be discriminated against. This has also meant that knowledge about traditional healing techniques was forgotten. For Calfinahuel, this is a major concern; she wants to ensure that her people’s traditions are not forgotten. She is a descendant of the legendary Mapuche leader, Desiderio Calfinahuel, who fought alongside other leaders, to have traditional Mapuche lands around Ruca Choroi returned to his people.
The new clinic is supposed to help “bring back the ‘old spirituality’ that our forefathers gifted us,” Calfinahuel says. Up until now the nearest hospital was located in Aluminé, 25 kilometres away. That is how far the residents of Ruca Choroi had to travel if they were ill. First aid could be given in the local school if necessary but with hardly any equipment and even less privacy. In their drive to change this some of the local community leaders were able to convince the former governor of Neuquén province of the merits of an intercultural clinic.
Building started in 2014 and saw the Mapuche work closely with the staff of the local health authorities. Bureaucratic hurdles delayed the clinic’s planned opening but this is now slated to happen in 2019. From then on the clinic will offer free healthcare services to the locals and will also be able to offer four hospital beds for in-clinic treatment.
“With this project we want to bring attention to types of medicine that were only practised behind closed doors for a long time,” Calfinahuel adds.
For example, in the new clinic, the heads of the patients’ beds will all point east, where the sun rises. Colourful tapestries will be hung on the walls. “The people here will feel good in order to get well again,” Peña notes.
Traditional Mapuche medical practices are based on two foundational elements: the phases of the moon and healing herbs. “Most things are regulated by the moon,” Calfinahuel says. “Medicines need to be prescribed by the new moon or full moon. This means that the sickness disappears as the moon does.”
Every part of a medicinal plant – whether roots, stem, flowers or leaves – is important and has a use. To treat a burn, the common Cranesbill geranium can be used. The plant is ground up and applied directly to the wound over a period of seven days. To heal and disinfect a wound, broadleaf plantain is applied and should there be fever or high blood pressure, a patient may be given another herb, Chilean centaury. Medicines like the painkiller Ibuprofen are only used as accessories to the plants.
According to Mapuche beliefs, there are some illnesses that conventional medicine cannot heal. For instance, there is “the evil wind” which causes high fever and stomach pain and which can only be cured by a “machi”. These are men or women who act as shamanic healers.
“For a long time, machis were persecuted in Argentina because people believed they were witches,” Peña explains. “They could do things like see into the future, something ordinary people cannot.”
Today most machis live in Chile, where Mapuche culture has remained strong, whereas there is not a single one remaining in Argentina. Every 20 days or so, a machi comes to Neuquén province to help heal the sick in the Argentinian community. In the future, there will most likely be a machi stationed at the new clinic permanently.
“There are situations that we cannot explain using our medical textbooks. But we don’t like to believe that because it doesn’t fit with our scientific beliefs,” says Fabián Gancedo, a doctor who works in conventional medicine at the hospital in Aluminé. Shortly before he received his license to practice medicine in 1988, Gancedo moved from Buenos Aires to Patagonia. Since then his conception of medical practice has changed. “Indigenous people here see health as a holistic thing,” he explains. “There isn’t even one single way to describe the concept of good health. They talk about ‘küme felen’ which means something like well-being.”
Gancedo has become convinced that sicknesses are also cultural and that patients can be cured by what they believe will cure them. “I have to have a sense of wellbeing in terms of my body, my spirituality and towards my ancestors, in order to be healthy,” Gancedo suggests. On the other hand, the Mapuche’s plants can’t cure everything, he stresses. If somebody is really ill they will need to go to a larger hospital. But even then the traditional methods can be used to support conventional medical practice.
In the new Ranguiñ Kien clinic, the doctors will come from around the region and should also have built up a connection to the local community. The doctors will make the first diagnosis and will then suggest either conventional medicine or traditional Mapuche treatments.
And here, in the half-moon shaped clinic, the patients will be able to gather around the central fireplace with their friends and relatives. But they will also be able to use the fireplace for a thousands-of-years-old tradition and call upon the spirits of their ancestors to help cure their ills.